How we created an outside-the-box SRI conference

How might university leaders facilitate a constructive conversation and decision-making process about intentionally investing our endowments?

This was a key question for college administrators who gathered in April for a first-of-its-kind conversation to discuss intentionally designed endowments with peers and investment experts.

Due to student pressure to take action on climate change, the conversation about how universities invest their endowments already was in full swing and accelerating. University leaders across the country feel the pressure from all sides, including from students, faculty, funders and trustees. The move for fossil fuel divestment was generating lots of heat, as well as many questions without clear answers.

As a result, Hampshire College and Second Nature were fielding questions from college, university and other nonprofit organization leaders about how to respond. The conference (PDF) was held in response, to facilitate peer-to-peer learning and access to expert knowledge, in terms of sustainable investing, effectively engaging stakeholders and leading organizational change. We wanted to tap into the existing conversation and open up new opportunities for positive and productive dialogue.

A different approach

For this meeting to be successful, we needed to create a safe space, neutral ground and a unique process. Second Nature and Hampshire College had high trust reputations for respectful, productive and collaborative work on climate issues in higher education. Invitations from these groups clearly stated the focus of the conference as "a safe venue for an exploration of issues and strategies for considering institutional values in investing — without advocating for any specific action or approach."

The next step was to tap into the ongoing conversation. Prospective participants were emailed a brief questionnaire that asked:

  • Given the focus of this meeting, what are your burning questions?
  • What unique knowledge or experience might you contribute to this conversation?
  • Please complete this sentence: "This meeting will be successful if at its conclusion I ..."

The data revealed more questions about how to align endowments with values than about whether to do it. Key questions focused on understanding how to evaluate the costs and benefits of values investing, learning what was happening on other campuses, understanding and addressing financial structural issues such as fiduciary responsibility and co-mingled funds, discovering and assessing the full range of strategies and products available and how to have constructive conversations across stakeholder groups.

The desired outcomes strongly clustered around five areas. Attendees wanted to gain an understanding of ESG investment risks and challenges, while learning what other institutions have done successfully. They also wanted to be able to discuss the pros and cons of ESG investments with institutional stakeholders. Also desired: Defining how to use collective resources to benefit institutions, society and the environment, and creating channels for continued dialogue with peers.

More than talking heads

It was clear that we needed a meeting that transferred overt or codified knowledge as efficiently as possible and left lots of time to share knowledge and create new solutions. The question on facilitating a constructive conversation created a unique opportunity to model a possible solution within the structure of our conversation.

We created a "primer" (PDF) that we asked everyone to read before the meeting. We also identified key ESG investment experts and leading legal thinkers on fiduciary responsibility to be "conversation catalysts." All "catalysts" received the participants' feedback so they could target their remarks. They were asked to play an evolving role as the day progressed from "interested listener" to "expert" during the content panels and conversations, and to "partner" during action planning.

Other aspects of the event included dialogue sessions after every content panel and mixed discussion groups throughout the day. The format gave everyone a chance to create possibilities for their unique situation and to practice articulating what they had been learning. We also created a valuable participant journal that included the agenda, bios and photos for all panelists, blank pages for notes and a complete list of participants with contact information.

A growing chorus

The learning that emerged was rich and the relationships developed were meaningful. Designing the event in this way ensured that it was an effective use of people's time. Even if not everyone agreed with everything that was said, they left better informed about the issues. It laid the groundwork for ongoing collaboration in this exciting and complex arena.

The building momentum among institutional investors — college and university endowments in particular — to better align investment practices with institutional mission and ESG goals promises to have dramatic implications for business. As these conversations grow, we have a tremendous opportunity to tap into the combined expertise and experience of actors in all parts of the system. How we design conversations on these topics will be critical to our success in aligning investment, business and education practices so they contribute to sustainability.

Conference image by razihusin via Shutterstock.